As one would expect from the quality of his maritime works, Montague Dawson (1895-1973) lived a life intimately connected to the sea. The grandson of Henry Dawson, a marine painter in his own right, and the son of an engineer and yachtsman, a fascination with the nautical was clearly in his blood. His father’s financial misfortune as an imaginative but rather impractical engineer proved a stroke of luck for Montague, whose family had to move from comfortable (but landlocked) Chiswick to Southampton, where a young Dawson would spend hours watching the ships.
Though not classically trained in the fine arts, Dawson received an exemplary working education in commercial art from the age of 15, working in a studio in London. Although the outbreak of war in 1914 halted his growing fascination with Dutch marine masters that he saw in London’s museums, it led to him joining the Navy, where his talent as a draughtsman landed him in the (aptly named) Dazzle section as a painter for the service. Not only did his time in the navy inculcate an even closer understanding of all types of vessel, it also introduced him to the aged Victorian marine artist, Charles Napier Henry (1841-1917) who became a mentor. Looking at Dawson’s Clipper paintings, one assumes that this bridge to the mid 19th century would prove invaluable.
As with most marine artists, Dawson clearly had a taste for the more romantic facets of the sea. While he returned to illustration in 1918, he was persuaded to join an expedition in search of treasure in the Caribbean in 1924! Although unsuccessful, the drawings he produced during this episode gave him the confidence to publish his works and become a professional artist.
From the outset he was highly respected, beginning to exhibit with the RA and becoming wealthy enough to buy a large art deco house on the coast by 1937 with his wife and daughter. During the Second World War he refused to leave the coast and worked again as a propagandist for the Royal Navy.
With his reputation reaching its apogee in the post-war years and his work patronised by the Royal Family and Presidents Eisenhower and then Johnson, Dawson turned his attention to his favourite subject matter, Clippers. Dawson’s painting of these Victorian engineering marvels further established them as the supreme expression of maritime aesthetics. Capturing their kinetic energy and sleek silhouettes, Dawson, like generations before him, saw in them the combination of practical design and beauty that made them famous. His works form a corpus of maritime portraiture that is still highly valued to this day.